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Dartford River Crossing

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight the continuing delays and hold-ups experienced by many of my constituents when trying to use the Dartford river crossing. The Minister will be aware that I have been highlighting the issue for some time, and the frustrations of regular users of the crossing have not diminished during that time. Indeed, various motoring organisations have reported that congestion has increased following the introduction of the increased tolls 12 months ago.

Anyone who uses the Queen Elizabeth II bridge on a Friday night heading into Kent will confirm the miles and miles of queues, with pollution and lost income arising from the hold-ups. It is not only my constituents, or indeed the constituents whom I hope to represent after the next general election in Old Bexley and Sidcup, who recognise the issue. The Department for Transport acknowledges that there is a serious problem. Its press release of 20 April 2009 noted that the route incorporating the Dartford river crossing

“is one of the routes with the highest levels of delays nationally and this level of service is experienced by around 40 to 45 per cent. of Crossing users.”

According to the Department, nearly half of all motorists experience delays at the crossing, and the cost is significant at around £40 million a year.

What is the cause? One might think that the worsening delays are caused by increasing traffic, but that is wrong. In the year ended March 2009, just over 51.5 million vehicles used the crossing, which was around 1.5 million fewer than the previous year, with an average of 141,500 movements a day—the lowest for a decade. If increased vehicle movements are not the problem, what is the cause? The answer is simple—the tolls, and the toll plaza arrangement.

Ministers have argued consistently—the Minister may do so this afternoon—that the purpose of the crossing tolls is to manage congestion. The reality is that they have been maximising congestion. The Department for Transport commissioned a study by consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was released earlier this year. They investigated the causes of the delays, and noted that the toll plaza lay-out was the primary constraint on vehicles using the crossing. It is right and proper that longer-term capacity across the Thames is examined—I shall come to that—but in the light of decreasing vehicle numbers using the Dartford crossing and increasing delays, the most pressing need is to examine options to maximise efficient use of the crossing.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. He will understand that there is real anger and concern in my constituency about the recent developments with tolling at the Dartford crossing, which he highlighted. Does he agree that residents believe that the Government have let them down by not dealing robustly and consistently with the matter earlier?

My hon. Friend has championed the cause several times, and I appreciate how strongly he feels about it. There are relevant factors for his constituents, including, for example, unavailability of the discount scheme to Bexley residents. I will come to that, as well as to the general issues of delays and congestion. We do not want the tunnels to become a glorified underground car park, or the bridge to become an aerial sightseeing spot for hours on end. Sadly, that has become the reality for motorists, as the Department for Transport’s studies show. That is why I welcome the current “better use” review of the crossing.

In a letter to me dated 25 September 2009, the Minister confirmed that the Department was considering two options as part of that review. The first scenario would maintain the two toll plazas, but seek to increase the use of newer technology and new plaza lay-outs. The second option could see the removal of the southbound charges with the installation of a larger northbound plaza through a redesigned lay-out, located in such a way that issues of weaving on the approach to the northbound tunnels could be addressed.

As the Minister is probably aware, I am rather sceptical about the requirement for charges at all. Therefore, the potential for at least the charges across the bridge into Kent being lifted is certainly welcome. I look forward to hearing more from him on that issue.

However, we are told that the better use review and, indeed, the wider review will take approximately 18 months to conclude. Can the Minister confirm when he expects the review to report to him? If it recommends that the southbound toll charges can be withdrawn safely—I appreciate the need to focus on safety issues and the fact that any changes should not add to problems or cause increased dangers to motorists—when can hard-pressed motorists expect any changes to the arrangements to be implemented?

Given the clear recognition by the Department of the congestion and delays, I urge the Minister to speed up the review, so that we can take some positive steps to speed up the traffic generally. If there is a way of decoupling the better use review from the wider aspects of the review of capacity more generally, I urge him to take that option. I appreciate that there may be arguments about the interconnectivity between the two, but as he will recognise, the clear indication from his own Department is that the problems that motorists are experiencing require that the issue of short-term capacity and better use of the existing crossing be expedited, so that motorists can see that there is some prospect of improvement taking place in the near term.

Let me move on to the wider review. Will the Minister provide an update on work on the lower Thames crossing capacity study? The initial report was released in January, setting out a number of potential options, some of which had significant environmental sensitivities attached to them. There has been no new information released since the initial capacity study, or detail as to whether the options explored comprise a potential bridge, a tunnel or both. Will the Minister explain what the milestones are in taking that programme forward and when he expects to present more detailed options for consultation? A number of stakeholders, including local residents and other groups, are keen to understand how the process is intended to move forward and how they can become involved in it as it progresses.

In looking to the future, we come to the issue of the Government’s most recent announcement about the Dartford crossing. In the past few weeks, we have had the news that the Government plan to sell off the crossing to raise about £3 billion in total, as part of the wider package of potential asset sales that they have said they are considering. It is clear that some value or price range has been put on the crossing to reach the headline figure of £3 billion. I appreciate that the Minister may feel constrained in sharing the Treasury’s valuation with us this afternoon, but he can share the assumptions made in estimating that indicative amount.

What level of charges has been assumed? How many vehicle movements have been allowed for? What assumptions have been made on investment in new technology for administering the tolls? Over what period was the income stream from the tolls allowed for? Most particularly, does the valuation take account of the outcome of the better use review? Clearly, if toll charges into Kent were scrapped, that would have an impact on the financial modelling. I am concerned about whether the Department has determined the outcome of the review in advance, even before the report has landed on Ministers’ desks. The Minister needs to give a clear and unequivocal answer this afternoon that any proposed sale will not fetter the implementation of the recommendations of the better use study as and when it reports.

In addition, what assurances can the Minister give that, if the crossing were sold off, charges would not be ramped up by a private sector owner, as part of a deal with the Treasury to maximise the capital value, but only through the exploitation of motorists for years to come? Then there is the issue of the level of charges. The crossing generates about £50 million of income for the Department for Transport each year. The Government took away the ring-fenced investment in local transport projects. That was about 12 months ago. Therefore, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of the moneys raised by the tolls will be spent on transport infrastructure in the vicinity of the bridge.

It is quite unusual, in a congestion management concept, that the money is not reinvested in public transport or other mechanisms that would see people using different routes in order to reduce congestion. In London, the congestion charge is used to fund bus services and other means of public transport in order to reduce reliance on the car. It is interesting to note that that does not apply to the Dartford river crossing. The historical justification was that the money would pay for the cost of the bridge—the cost of the building and of maintenance. That no longer applies, so there are continued questions about what the justification is if it is not congestion management, for the reasons that I have highlighted. The Government need to consider the whole issue of the charges that are being applied. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is not present at this debate, but he has raised the legality of the charges overall. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister has any views on the rationale and justification for retaining the charges.

What the Government have done, though, is to create a scheme for residents living in the areas of Thurrock and Dartford councils to receive discounts for using the crossing. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how successful that has been. What has the take-up been? How many residents have sought to apply for one of the permits?

Equally, it would be interesting to hear the latest information on take-up of the DART-Tag. Previously, the DART-Tag had a facility whereby there were dedicated lanes, but with the introduction of the new toll charges, the dedicated lanes were scrapped, so what might have been seen as one benefit of having the DART-Tag—being able to speed through the toll plaza—was removed, albeit registering for a DART-Tag gives people certain benefits in the form of discounts. However, it would be interesting to drill down on the local discount scheme. How many people have registered? How much money have residents in those areas saved by registering for the discounts since the scheme was introduced?

More generally, there is the basic issue of the scheme’s fairness. This is a relevant issue for people living in the vicinity of the crossing. Someone can be living nearly 13 miles away from the bridge in Thurrock and receive the benefit of the discount scheme, yet if someone is a resident of Wennington village in Havering, which is in my constituency, or of Crayford in Bexley—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett)—and therefore lives much closer, the discount scheme simply does not apply. That appears to residents of my constituency and, I am sure, of my hon. Friend’s constituency as perverse and unfair.

It would be possible to operate a scheme based on post codes within a certain geographical area around the crossing. That could be administered. I appreciate that there is a need to consider something that is practical and does not create a new burdensome bureaucracy, but at least that approach would be more equitable and logical. It would certainly be fairer. Therefore, will the Minister commit at least to a review of the discount arrangements, based on the experience that he will have received information about in the past 12 months, so that those basic issues of fairness can be addressed?

Anyone who uses the Dartford crossing regularly will appreciate the sheer frustration of being stuck in miles and miles of jams. The Department for Transport needs to get on with its review of the need for additional road capacity across the Thames and, in particular, better use of the existing crossing. The current tolling arrangements appear—motoring organisations suggest this as well—to be adding to the delays and congestion, and motorists certainly should not be seen as a soft target.

I therefore trust that the Minister will assure us that his Department is committed to measures that will help to beat the queues, such as scrapping the tolls into Kent. I trust also that he will help drivers who are driven to distraction by delays and that he will help businesses to keep on moving in these times of continuing recession. The crossing and those who use it should not be seen merely as a cash cow for the Treasury.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate. The Dartford crossing is a heavily used piece of the strategic road network, with about 150,000 vehicles using it every day. The crossing brings huge benefits to users. After the construction of the M25, the crossing became a key part of the strategic road network, and the Government decided to promote the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. A concession was let for the building of the bridge, which opened in October 1991. Under the concession, tolls were charged to pay for building costs.

The substantial growth of traffic that we saw in the 1990s had two effects. First, it increased the revenue collected—thus the bridge would be paid for sooner than might have been expected. Secondly, and more significantly, it raised concerns about what might happen if the tolls were removed. A study in 2001 indicated that, without a charge, traffic would increase by 17 per cent. Against that background, we replaced the tolls with a charge. The hon. Gentleman spoke of increased delays, but the response to recent parliamentary questions shows that delays of more than 15 minutes have remained relatively stable over the past year or so.

The Transport Act 2000 requires that revenues from charging schemes are invested in transport. Revenues come directly to the Department for Transport, not the Treasury, and add to what is available for investment in transport projects across the country. That includes projects of direct benefit to users of the crossing, such as enhancements to the trunk road network on either side of it.

Given the prospect of increasing traffic, we were keen to target the charge better. In our 2006 consultation, we proposed removing all charges between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when traffic is lightest, and to increase the charge for cars to £1.50. We also proposed allowing those opting to pay using an electronic DART-Tag to continue to cross for the old £1 cash rate. Electronic payment has two advantages: it is more convenient, and it saves time at the barriers. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the figures that I have seen suggest that, since the introduction of the revised charging rate, the take-up of the DART-Tag is increasing monthly.

As a result of the 2006 consultation, a substantial number of representations were made in favour of discounts for local residents. We agreed to work up a local resident discount scheme, so that the people most affected would be included. The changes were introduced in November 2008. Some 20,000 local residents accounts can be added to the generality of DART-Tag accounts, which number 87,000.

I shall now address some of the arguments most often raised about the Dartford crossing. The one that I hear most often—to an extent, the hon. Gentleman repeated it—is that the barriers cause the congestion and that, if we were to take them away, the queues would disappear. The evidence suggests that the real problem is the volume of traffic and that, even if the toll plazas were removed, there would still be queues. The crossing was designed to handle up to 135,000 vehicle movements each day, but it is not uncommon for there to be 160,000 vehicle movements.

The crossing is a bottleneck. Not only is traffic coming from the M25, but traffic going northbound from Kent and south-east London joins the M25 traffic, and there are some busy local junctions. The tunnels are a particular problem, and the barriers fulfil an important traffic management function. Not to have them could have significant safety implications. Removing the charge and taking the barriers away altogether is not the answer. It would be irresponsible, and would have a negative impact on people’s safety.

I recognise what the Minister says about toll charging being a means of controlling traffic going into the two tunnels and about the road lay-out, the weaving of traffic and the safety implications that may exist in such circumstances. His arguments are predicated on the increased traffic of the 2001 study to which he referred, yet experience over the past 10 years shows that traffic has declined. The average is now at its lowest for 10 years. Will he reflect on his comments in the light of reducing traffic, particularly—sadly so given the recession—given that we are likely to see a further reduction? The question of tolls is less relevant in relation to the bridge, as I am sure that he will agree.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about the overall quantum of traffic. In evidence to the Transport Committee recently, we set out our view of the trends: we accept that there has been some decline as a result of the economic downturn, but anticipate that we will return to continued growth.

Another argument that we often hear is that people have no choice about the journeys that they make and that the charge therefore makes no difference. The evidence does not bear that out. Since removing the night time charges, we have noticed that some journeys are being made earlier. We also noticed higher traffic levels when local retail centres were running promotions. That implies that there is some discretion about the journeys that people make. The real problem is too much demand and not enough capacity.

In recognition of the increasing growth in demand, the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) announced that the Department for Transport would embark on a study to consider the long-term capacity issues at the crossing and to look at possible options for addressing rising demand. In April 2009, the Department published its initial analysis of current and possible future capacity constraints at the crossing, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That analysis brought together the most recent information on the current performance of the crossing. It also provided forecasts of its future performance. That gives us the best evidence base for assessing what needs to be done.

The Government are clear about the fact that we need to address both the short and medium-term issues faced by our national transport networks. We must plan for the transport network that we want for the future. Based on findings and conclusions of that analysis, we announced in April that further work should be undertaken to investigate what can be done in the short to medium term to improve the service provided by the existing crossing. We recognise that options for improvements in the short term may be limited by physical constraints at the existing crossing. However, we consider that more could be done to improve users’ crossing experience.

As for making better use of the crossing, our recent study recommended further work on two possible scenarios. It recognised that each had the potential to generate some benefits by increasing throughput, while avoiding an impact on safety. The first scenario would maintain the two toll plazas but would seek to increase their efficiency by using newer technology and new plaza layo-uts. The second scenario proposed the removal of the southbound charges and the installation of a larger northbound plaza in a redesigned lay-out, located in such a way that the weaving of traffic on the approach to the northbound tunnels could be addressed.

The initial study also considered major infrastructure options that would provide additional capacity, and it produced a high-level assessment of their impact. The three options for a new crossing identified in the study are at the site of the existing crossing, between the Swanscombe peninsula and the A1089, and from the east of Tilbury to the east of Gravesend and the M20. We intend to consider the merits of the better-use options, as well as the options identified for the provision of possible additional crossing capacity. There are some clear synergies in the work involved, particularly in the assessment of benefits and impacts.

The hon. Gentleman has urged the Government to ensure that the consideration and implementation of a one-way tolling regime should be completed as soon as possible and should not depend on the timing of any consideration of the case for additional crossing capacity. It is not possible to divorce those two pieces of work as suggested—indeed, he made some of my argument for me, particularly on the possible sale of the bridge—given the linkages between them and the need to derive the most suitable combination of options. We need to understand the implications of one-way tolling, but we expect work to consider making better use of the crossing to take between 12 and 18 months. We therefore expect the review to be finalised in mid to late 2010. If there are opportunities to implement measures safely, we will of course do so, but we will need to understand the potential costs and benefits of any proposals.

Finally, to be clear about the potential sale of the crossing, it was announced in the 2009 Budget that further work to assess future capacity requirements for the Dartford crossing would be undertaken with a view to bringing forward proposals to realise value by the Budget of 2010.

On 12 October, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s plans for the sale of assets over the next period. Included in the list of assets to be sold was the Dartford crossing. The Department is currently considering the various commercialisation options for the existing crossing and funding for any additional capacity in the future. The options are being considered alongside the initial analysis of the further capacity options, and the exact nature of any concession sale will be influenced by the outcome of that study.

The options currently being considered include letting a long-term concession to operate and maintain the current crossing, letting a concession for the period prior to new capacity being constructed, letting a concession with the option to add new capacity as required and letting a concession incorporating the design, build, finance and operations of a new crossing. Any option will need to support the crossing’s long-term capability as part of the strategic road network.

In a parliamentary answer to the hon. Gentleman, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), said:

“No estimate of the saleable value of the Dartford River Crossing has been made. Any such valuation would depend on the nature of any commercial agreements for a sale, including, but not exclusively, the length of those arrangements, the level of future charges and forecast future traffic volumes. The assumptions made around those issues are the same as those which would be made for normal business planning purposes.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 1444W.]

Given the monopolistic nature of the Dartford crossing, the charging regime under any concession will need to be set within a contractual framework to protect users. As a result, charges will be set at a level that is appropriate for both users and any potential concession owner, and that will be consistent with economic efficiency and the Government’s policy objectives for managing congestion.

The Department plans to provide initial views from its analysis of capacity options in early 2010 and the timing of the necessary further steps needed to reach final conclusions on the provision of additional capacity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.